Growing up in America since the age of 2.5 was always big a challenge, especially during the 2nd-12th grade years. Why? Mẹ (mom) & Ba (dad) were always in the way. Everything us kids (6 to be exact) wanted to do had to be interfered by a parent, especially when it came to issues of maintaining our “Vietnamese-ness”.
My parent’s major obstacle of raising 6 kids in America was to ensure that we wouldn’t completely forget our cultural identity. They had no qualms about our quick ascent to Americanization, but would they be able to stall the inevitable diffusion of our language skills and palette for nưởc mắm (fish sauce)? As part of their battle plan, they relied on ammunition they knew best: the strict Vietnamese way of discipline, Vietnamese language/culture and Vietnamese food.
Good old fashioned, butt spanking discipline, language & cuisine was part of a strategy that they could control within the walls of our 2 bedroom apartment. Outside the home was up to society and mother nature. So, we had to speak Vietnamese in the house (English was communicated secretly, underground back then), never ask “why?” more than once and we had to eat Vietnamese food. Being at the mercy of the parent cooks at the time required eating what ever they dictated for the family that evening.
Back then, there was very little democratic input for meal selections. The political party heading our household was definitely very extremist. They said that they were looking out for us kids, but only when they felt like it. If they craved soup, we slurped it. If they wanted springrolls, we rolled it. Our knowledge of food was almost strictly limited to those lessons learned in the home kitchen.
It wasn’t until we went to school that I realized a world of fruit roll-ups, pizza, warm, aluminum tinned casseroles and burgers were part of lunches. During elementary school, my glorious feasts on everything American was deliciously exhilarating. There were no noodles, not a grain of white rice, nor a fish head to pick the meat out of. Both my fobby eyes and rice nurtured belly got bigger as my cafeteria lunches oozed of cheese, canned fruit and more cheese!
I owe it all to our culinary exposure to school cafeteria lunches that “edumacated” us on the fact there was life outside of rice and greens. This education opened up a whole new set of vocabulary to bring home to Ma & Pa.
“What about some pizza dad? How bout one o’ them American burgers?, Yum”. But unless there was a discount sale & a coupon (must be subject to doubling for extra savings) for that American food item, rest assured it was another night of rice, one meat, vegetable & soup item. Darn it!!
Not to say that my loving parents didn’t try to accommodate our new world cravings, but meals for a family of 8 were more about finances first. On special occasions my parents ventured beyond the norm & tried the best they could to not isolate us from the normal pack of hungry wolves. Understand, it’s too expensive to feed 6 growing and always hungry kids McDonalds, so they had to get creative & turned to what they knew best about food, by cooking it.
Ya want “ham-buh-guh” ? No problem, “we cook”.
Ever seen a cheeseburger made by a Việt pack of 8 back in ‘86? It wasn’t exactly the kick ass, bomb burger, but it wansn’t bad. Mom sliced and fried the potatoes for the fries & even folded up our white school paper to mimic the french fry sleeves like the real places. The little ones drew the infamous yellow “M” logo on the front with their yellow crayola crayons. Dad made thick ,all beef patties with the “special sauce” (fish sauce). But the lettuce, cheese, pickles, & onions on the sesame seed bun were the line cooks job (bigger kids). We pretty much had all the trimmings that stayed competitive with the real places, but dad’s thick, fried onions as the extra trimming made it worth all the kitchen effort.
Eating this way allowed each kid to eat 2-3 burgers, along with a side of fries if we pleased, without breaking the bank. Then off to bed we all went (with satisfied bellies) into a deep, food coma inspired sleep. No longing , craving dreams of dancing sugar plum fairies, spinning pepperoni pizza’s, nor triple cheese pattied burgers haunted me that night. Just good sleep.
They even became creative with other dishes to try to satisfy our hunger pains. Mom’s infamous spaghetti (pronounced “sap-a-get-ee”) had a homemade tomato sauce, topped over succulent, over-cooked noodles, meaty beef meatballs (just like the Americans make) and finally topped with her own special touch – hotdogs & breakfast sausage links.
Breakfast sausage links, you ask? Maybe it was her need for pork, her creation of a fusion dish or maybe there was a Farmer John clearance sale in the refrigerated section. I never understood it, but we never complained because there could have been a worse addition, cat fish. She loves cat fish, but cat fish sap-a-get-ee? “Hot dogs are great mom!” Actually, now that I think of it, we recycled left over spaghetti sauce to coat our sliced white bread to make our version of pizza. So maybe her genius hotdog additions were thought of as pepperoni. What ever her reasons were, it was better than another noodle night. Viva, Italia for us that night!
Life was especially good when there was a sale at Lucky’s (extinct grocery store chain in LA). When there was a sale on boxed Kraft Mac N Cheese….oh goodness, “Mom buy a lot cuz there might be an earthquake!”. Mac N Chese out of the box was like pure culinary gold, a treasure chest of pasta and goopy cheese. The muscial shake of the pearls in the box was the chow call to get all six kids running to eat.
When it came time to cooking this delicacy out of the box, us kids took over the kitchen ourselves. Mom & Dad need not interfere in this sacred ritual. One kid measured the milk & the margarine (back then we understood margarine & butter to be the same thing), while the eldest handled the boiling of the precious “mac” pasta pearls. The group effort continued for the drain, but the top line cook position went to the one who had the honor of pouring on the prized jewel, the delicious dried, orange cheese powder.
Watching the magic of the vibrant orange cheese hue blend with the milk, margarine & “macs” was emotional. There was not a dry mouth in the kitchen. There was definitely a technique & a skill needed for the cheese powder: it must be sprinkled on slowly so that no cheese powder chunks can accumulate in the mac pasta. Once all the ingredients were combined and all cheese powder chunks were broken up, we all huddled around the kitchen table for the important last process, the plating. With all 6 plastic bowls in place & the ladle in hand, dinner was almost served. Here, the ladle ain’t used for no stinkin’ phở noodle soup, it was for Mr. Kraft’s marvelous creation. Each ladle had to be to equally topped off for each bowl. If it seemed too high with the mac & cheese…”Start over! Pour it all back in the pot and start over stupid! That’s not fair! Here, let me do it!” Those were the good kitchen memories.
Then there were the “other” memories when it came to cooking Việt dishes. Dad & Mom were picky about their food (I now appreciate their finickiness). They appreciated GOOD vietnamese food. No matter how much time or steps it took to achieving the right texture, flavor & balance, they made sure it was followed. BUT they couldn’t do it all by themselves! No sur-ee-bob! It took more than 2 people to prepare their feasts. That’s where 6 kids came in handy.
One child slave was anointed the “pain in the ass” Lemongrass Masher Station. Pick the lemongrass from the garden, wash, slice & dice very small then mash it in the mortar & pestle till you’ve pulverized the shit out of it. Dad wanted that to be really, really, really dead so that he could still enjoy the flavor of the lemongrass on his beef without the grassy texture.
Second in line to the cooks throne had the honor of the Garlic Masher. Easy & fast right? Not when mom is making her stock 4 gallons of fish dipping sauce and gives you 15 heads of garlic to de-clove, peel & mash. Heads, not cloves, but heads of garlic. The mortar only held a max of about 3 heads at one time. So you had to do it in increments. The time wasn’t so much of the painful part, but rather, it was the smell of garlic fingers for the next 2 days. It wasn’t till I was stationed at the Shrimp Peeling Station that I realized I was allergic to the shrimp shells. After peeling a few pounds of shrimp, my fingers puffed up like those pink chinese sausages. I loved eating the caramelized shrimp, but it was a painful & itchy childhood to satisfy my parents shrimp cravings.
Mom & Dad actually liked this shrimp dish with the shells on, but when your 4 year old almost chokes on the shell, it’s time to be a little more American. Shells off is better for the kids, but not for the fingers. Thanks for thinking of us Mẹ & Ba. The bulkiest station was Greens Washer, which had to wash pounds & pounds of greens. We always had to have a dish with greens: lettuce, Việt spinach, bok choy, greens soup, mint, basil…. you name it, if it was green we ate it. It just never made sense to a kid have to go through so much trouble for fresh, home made dishes that had to be made up of a starch, protein, & greens. “Eating a Micky D hamburger was fast, no dishes to wash, & had all the complete four food groups,” I told my Dad. But he never listened.
The one last & least prized stations was one that violated all child labor laws. It was so gross and hideous that our Masters finally allowed us to occasionally use gloves. The Squid Cleaning Station. Oh you gawd awful sea creatures with big eye-balls, tentacles, ink and mushy guts!! What does Dad see in you? Why o why the squid & cabbage dish? I could have turned him over to authorities when we had to pull out the tentacles heads out of their bodies (& be gentle with the tentacles cuz dad loved those).
A 20/20 or 60 Minutes investigation certainly would have him behind bars for forcing a 6th grader to stick their fingers inside the bodies of these poor innocent creatures for de-gutting. Dad says learning how to properly de-gut & clean squid made a man/obedient-woman out of you. “Yeah? Well I’m still a kid! Don’t even know what puberty means yet! You just robbed me of my innocence by forcing me to stick my finger into that squid!” But to be honest, all skills are not lost. To this day, I can clean and gut five pounds of squid faster than a Nascar pit-stop (well, almost). Still, I’m fast! You get the point, right?
Those were horror stories just for dinner…now what happens when they cook for their friends? Oh shit, they had to prove their hospitality and cooking greats at the stake of us kids. Imagine all stations, hustling and bustling with a grade school staff and Việt “Paris by Night” music in the background. It was like the scene from a bad Saturday night live skit.
The most profound memories of one particular feast made us realize the great depths my parents took to achieve the highest & freshest ingredients possible. As a kid, I never really knew what the exact menu was because I worked the same damn stations every time. But one day Dad & a friend brought home a gift for us. It was a pair of live ducks in a crate. “Oh how cute! Dad, did you catch them at the park? There’s a lot them there”, I said. “No, I bought them” he said. “And don’t ask any more questions!” We didn’t ask anything else, but we did play with them while they were caged up and ended up bonding with them & naming one Daffy.
Time came when they sent us to go outside to play for a long while. “A long time? How long?, we’d ask. “Stop asking so many questions!”, my dad would say firmly. So outside we went for our long play time. When we returned after that long while, dinner was ready. Obviously the first thing we did was to go find Daffy and friend, but no where were the mallards to be found. I innocently asked, “Dad, where are they?” . It took him a while to answer but we got it out of him,”They flew away, now sit down & eat!” How sad I was to hear that they escaped, lucky I didn’t bond with them too much cause I would have taken it personal.
As we all gathered around the table the feast that was laid out on the table was like the dream buffet. There were big plates of meat, noodles, rice, vegetables, sauces, herbs and some newer dishes they added like the one with the weird dark red jello-y squares. Back then, family tradition made each child have to recite a long drawn out table welcome greeting to each adult before the meal. Rather than prayers before a meal, it was ” I invite Mom, Dad, Mr. #1, Mrs. #1, Mr. #2, Mrs.#2, ya da ya da, uncle, aunt, an so forth…..to eat dinner “. It was torture to have to recite this when you were starving, especially when there were 6 recitals to be heard. But as I finished my greeting, I scanned the table & noticed a small piece of feather stuck on one of the plates. Feather? I’ve pretty much seen it all as a 5th grader; bones, eyeballs, all types of offal, pigs feet, fish heads, intestines, tentacles and so forth, but NEVER a feather. My eyes couldn’t help but to focus in more closely at the weird dark red jello-y dish. Feather, dark jello cubes, feather, jello, feather, jello…..oh no. I had to ask. “Dad, are those dark jello cubes….blood?!”. He gave me that ice cold “10 butt whippen” glance. I shut up and just chewed.
This meal was short for me. I couldn’t believe they did this to Daffy. How could you? So many things crossed my mind at that point…what kitchen tool did you use? Was it the one with the big square blade? Did you hit it on top of the head with the stone pestle first? Did you poison them with the squid ink? Terrible, terrible torturers you guys are. It’s much easier to stomach for those who were raised on a ranch/farm and grew up watching & understanding where their food came from. But for kid who’s groceries came pretty much cleaned & pre-packaged, the sight of a feather was devastating. Since then, eating duck was never the same.
As more kids were assigned stations, it became very evident why my parents had so many kids. I swear the reason why they had so many kids was to have more prep cooks. They even played with their “brilliant” idea of opening an restaurant. This Việt family restaurant concept came oh soooooo close to reality. They thought it was so great, why not? You have your ready made 6 staff positions: dishwasher, waiter, waitress, sous chef, & bus-boy for the back of the house. The front of the house would have the one kid that could re-fill the hoisin, soy and siracha hot sauce condiments and most importantly, interpret for Dad. So where is Mom & Dad in this whole scheme? Mom would probably be in the back ladling the phở while Dad sat out front as cashier and order taker (as with most mom & pop Việt restaurants now days). Thank goodness they chose different career paths.
During those kid years, I sometimes felt that my childhood was robbed of the American food experience. I never knew what a real apple pie tasted like, you know, those round ones that came out of the oven. The only apple pie we ever knew were the calzone shaped ones that were 5 for $1. Having a “Happy Meal” was for the lucky kids, so there was not even a chicken nugget to my name. We didn’t even know pizza delivery existed because we were brainwashed in thinking pizza came from the frozen food section by Mr. Totino (again, if it was on sale 10 for $10). But again, lucky for those O so delicious daily school cafeteria lunches or else I really would have lived in a culinary bubble.
One good thing came out of going to school: no rice, noodles, greens nor fish. I always ate everything on my lunch plate & licked it clean of all crumbs. At home Vietnamese food was good for me & I enjoyed it, but as a kid I would have been happier with just one Việt meal a day.
Everything changed when I started working at 14 and was able to keep part of my paycheck. With that extra cash, I bought my own meals at Burger King, McDonalds, Wienerschnitzel, Tastee Freeze. What ever was with in walking distance from home or on the way home from school , I consumed. I loved every minute of it. As my eyes grew wide with greasy delight, so did my gut. But I was so satisfied. I was living the American Dream by myself, on my own terms, with my own selection of food and deciding for myself if I wanted to add fries to that. The culinary independence was thrilling.
As I entered these teen years, Mom & Dad worked much longer hours to support the family & meals now were more about convenience. It was much easier to buy 4 large pizzas for dinner then cook the big meal. Việt dinners were reduced to weekends & maybe a few times during the week. For the rest of the days, it came down to Việt leftovers or burgers and pizza. Still, I was happy and didn’t seem to even miss the rice & soups. I was an occasional chopstick eating, obedient Việt-speaking kid at home & a fast-food devouring American kid outside.
Being at home even during college, I had a good balance of both worlds: Jack in the Box for breakfast before classes, fast food at the student centers for lunch and an Việt dinner. But it wasn’t until my last semester in college that changed my gastronomic yearnings completely. I went away to participate on the Northern Spotted Owl biological research project in Olympic National Park for 4 months.
Over half of that time was spent living for 7 days straight in the rainy, wet boonies of the rain-forest chasing owls. My huge caloric intake out in the back-country consisted of what ever was dried & light enough to carry in my pack to last me for 7 days. These meals consisted of bagels with butter, gorp, power bars, 8 oz of cooked pasta for dinner, m&m’s for dessert & more butter to keep me warm at night. But after two (seven day) stints in the slippery, moss laden land of the Olympic National Park backcountry, my body was breaking down. I was eating over 4,000 calories a day and still not satisfied.
On my days off I would eat & eat and never be content with my meals. Realizing that my body was aching & my spirit was deteriorating not because I was weak mentally or physically, but because I was missing some important flavors and textures to keep my body & spirit happy…. rice, greens, noodle soup & soy sauce. All the flavors and foods I thought I could do without, my body was crying out for. Never had I craved a bowl of white rice so badly or anything that reminded me of my childhood meals at home. I could have almost sold my bagel buried soul to the devil for a bowl of spicy, steaming hot Bún Huế noodle soup. Maybe it was a sign that I was homesick, but all I knew at the time was that I was f***** starving for my native foods. There was not one Việt that I saw in the town where I lived, let alone a restaurant.
So after a quick phone call to my mother, Christmas came early in the form of a food care package. This treasure chest was filled to the rim with four different type of ramen noodles (ones you find at Việt grocery stores), a huge bottle of soy sauce, bottle of garlic chili sauce, dried persimmons, dried banana treats, and pretty much anything else that was not American. I had carried a few of these items along with me in my truck during my drive up, but never realized how much more I was needing. This care package took care of me in so many ways because it not only kept me connected and reminded of home, but it saved me from an early death of bagels and cream cheese.
Home was where the hot noodles were, where the jasmine rice was still warm and where the pickled bok-choy was fresh & crunchy. The box didn’t fulfill all those lacking nutrients but I was humbled to realize that all which I avoided as a kid was what was able to save me and protect me from the outside elements. My back-country days now were then filled with a piping hot bowl of ramen noodles for breakfast, raw ramen noodles for lunch(with the MSG sauce packet tossed inside), and more ramen soup for dinner to dry me on the outside & keep me warm on the inside.
It was empowering to devour a bowl of hot noodles. No hill, river or mountain side would break my spirits now. As long as I had a pack of ramen in my pack during the day and know that packs were waiting for me at camp kept me focused and strong. I still kept the gorp, M&M’s, & some pasta, but not the f****** bland bagels.
During my days off from the back-country, I was limited to ingredients from my pack. I preparing home cooked meals and realized all the meals I was creating were things that I was tired of as a kid -Vietnamese food. My little rice cooker was my very best friend. To fill it with the jasmine rice that I yearned, I drove to Seattle & bought my self a 50 pound bag of rice. I didn’t resist my childhood instincts and home kitchen education this time, so if it was a 50 pound bag we use to buy then a 50 pound bag it will be! I then became everyones best friend in the national park when they needed to satisfy a craving for Asian food (There weren’t too many of us Việt’s living on the Washington peninsula).
Being butt broke and living on a $50 a week food stipend, I was barely able to feed my self, let alone all my research teammates. So thankfully everyone who was making the big bucks helped me out and brought me groceries to prepare my many Việt dishes. The most prized dish (& the one that I was eventually nick-named after) were the Vietnamese springrolls. I made so many springrolls for the crew that my nick name became “Springroll Girl “.
I felt like a celebrity because I was cooking Vietnamese food; a cuisine that many on my crew had never been exposed to before. All Asian food to most of my friends on the crew was reduced to the basic chinese fried rice, chow mein & orange chicken. To have a Vietnamese fried springroll & fresh springroll with lettuce, herbs & dipping sauce was so different to them that it was exhilarating for me to see non-Việt’s get so exited. What a compliment it was to me (really a beginning, mediocre cook at best, but they didn’t know that) and what a respect it was to my culture to have all my friends rant & rave over Việt food. I was given the “cook” status and never did it ever cross my mind that I would leave a biological research project famous for rolling cabbage up 50 times.
My five minutes of fame at Olympic National Park opened up my mind, my cookbooks and inspired me to research and create foods beyond my springrolls. I was definitely living the irony of life that is the premise to so many other stories: finding comfort & re-connecting with your childhood experiences. Now, never do I neglect my cravings of rice, soup or noodles. It’s even more humbling to satisfy my hunger pains with home cooked meals. Knowing what I learned as a kid had returned to haunt me, but in the best sense of the word.
I look back at all those days on the prep stations to remember how it was all prepped to get the garlic, lemongrass and shallots to the right size and fried to proper crispness. I closed my eyes more than once to envision again all that my mother & father taught me regarding pickling, caramelizing pork, salting fish & pineapple, and phở broth family secrets. All these conjures up excitement in my appetite but may stir up a frown in others. But it’s not the specific dish that is as important as the sights, sounds and smells that bring us back to our roots & happiness to our bellies.
Many can probably relate to my experiences whether it be with rice or any meals from ones childhood. My feelings of overburden with childhood foods have humbled me to the fifth degree. If I can’t remember the verbal recipes cited again and again to me from the past, I again close my eyes to try to remember the scents, sounds and sizzle of the pan. When my dishes don’t exactly come out as remembered, I know the recipe’s and lessons are just a phone call away.
My parents original battle plan & food boot camp molded me into a better soldier. Now that I am away from my Generals protection & my platoon of 6, I battle it all out without them in my own home kitchen, but I’m still not alone. I’m truly living the best of both worlds now with my caucasian love of 12 years. Our honest relationship keeps me real and rooted to my Vietnamese traditions but at the same time, our relationship keeps me open-minded to everything that is not Việt. The world of food continues to educate me on many levels, beyond knowing how to steam rice. Food fosters friendships, understanding, tolerance and explorations into outside cultures and it’s people.
The comfort of knowing that Vietnamese food is in my kitchen keeps me safe and the excitement of learning new foods from around the world keeps me sane.
I am living and learning, just the way all my elders said I would.